ATLANTA — Georgia’s supply of the single drug it uses to perform executions is set to expire next month, and state officials haven’t said whether they’ve found a way to get more of the powerful sedative that is in relatively short supply.
The state has 17 vials of pentobarbital, which is enough for six lethal injections, corrections officials said. Georgia Department of Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan did not respond to questions about what the state might be doing to obtain more, but she said the state doesn’t intend to change its execution method.
Georgia changed its execution protocol from a three-drug combination to a single-drug method using pentobarbital in July. It had been using pentobarbital to sedate inmates before injecting pancuronium bromide to paralyze them and potassium chloride to stop their hearts.
The state has two executions scheduled this week. Warren Lee Hill is set to be executed tonight and Andrew Allen Cook is set to be put to death Thursday evening. It’s unlikely any others will be scheduled before the pentobarbital expires March 1, Hogan said.
A number of states have grappled with difficulties securing drugs for executions as manufacturers of the drugs, which generally have other medical purposes, said they didn’t want their drugs used for executions.
Georgia began using pentobarbital as part of its three-drug combination in 2011 after another drug, sodium thiopental, became unavailable when its European supplier bowed to pressure from death penalty opponents and stopped making it. But now pentobarbital appears to be in relatively short supply, too.
Denmark-based Lundbeck Inc., the only U.S.-licensed maker of pentobarbital, sold the product to another firm in 2011. Lundbeck said a distribution system meant to keep the drug out of the hands of prisons would remain in place after Lake Forest, Ill.-based Akorn Inc. acquired it.
“It’s a problem for states,” said Richard Dieter, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center. “They keep having to switch drugs … so they keep having to write different protocols and get them approved.”
It’s very difficult to tell exactly how much pentobarbital is available to states for executions or what other options states are considering because corrections officials aren’t always forthcoming with details about their execution method plans, Dieter said.
There has been some indication that some states may turn to compounding pharmacies to get pentobarbital. Such pharmacies custom-mix solutions, creams and other medications in doses or forms that generally aren’t commercially available.
But that could have additional challenges. Ohio, which also uses a single dose of pentobarbital, has enough pentobarbital to execute four inmates, but has nine executions scheduled after that. The state’s prisons agency indicated last week that it wants a law to protect compounding pharmacies that might mix execution drugs. Currently, Ohio law doesn’t allow compounding pharmacies to mix drugs if they’re commercially available.
Repeated changes of execution drugs or methods also opens states to legal challenges that can delay executions, as lawyers for death row inmates use various arguments to question whether the new methods or drugs are humane or whether their use is legal.